When a group of House conservatives voted last week to kill a trade bill favored by President Obama, House Speaker John Boehner and other GOP leaders who support the measure steamed. Representative Mick Mulvaney (R., S.C.) celebrated the revolt as a coming-of-age moment for rebel backbenchers.
“Yesterday will be the day that we look back at as the day that conservatives finally started getting organized in the House,” he wrote in a note to the Spartanburg Tea Party.
Led by Representative Jim Jordan (R., Ohio), a platoon of conservatives demanded that Boehner agree to a series of concessions in exchange for their support for so-called Trade Promotion Authority (TPA), legislation that would give President Obama wider latitude to negotiate free-trade agreements. When GOP leadership ignored them, Jordan and his allies tried to kill the bill on a procedural vote — a rare step made more surprising by the lawmakers’ general support for free trade. It was the boldest attempt yet from the recently formed House Freedom Caucus, which Jordan chairs, to counteract Boehner’s perceived tendency to wilt in the face of Democratic pressure.
The episode was a startling demonstration of Jordan’s growing clout in the conference. “He’s mobilized some pretty significant opposition, which is a little strange because on the substance of this you’re basically bringing guys over to [side] with the AFL-CIO,” says another House Republican.
Jordan and other members of the Freedom Caucus believe that Republican leaders have tended to yield to Democratic demands rather than keeping the promises they made on the campaign trail in 2014. And they thought that sending Boehner a message was important enough to oppose a free-trade package they’d normally be inclined to support.
“Why do 65 percent of Republican voters think Republicans aren’t doing what we said we were going to do? You know why? Because we’re not doing what we said we were going to do,” says one Freedom Caucus member. “We didn’t talk about trade. . . . We talked about dealing with the executive amnesty issue, we talked about dealing with Obamacare, we talked about totally reforming the tax code, requiring work for welfare.”
Jordan and other members of the Freedom Caucus believe that Republican leaders have tended to yield to Democratic demands rather than keeping the promises they made on the campaign trail in 2014.
A senior GOP aide associated with the Freedom Caucus suggests that Jordan’s strength is partly a function of Boehner’s decision to “marginalize” some lawmakers. Boehner’s credibility also took a hit during the lame-duck session, when Representative Marlin Stutzman (R., Ind.) accused GOP leaders of tricking him into supporting the so-called “Cromnibus” funding package at a key juncture. “There are some members who simply feel that people in leadership come to them but their words don’t mean anything,” says the aide.
Last week, leadership galvanized Jordan and his allies by refusing to allow Republican amendments to TPA, even as they negotiated with Democrats in an attempt to rally enough votes to make up for the GOP defections. “So, the Democrats basically got to amend the process; we didn’t,” Jordan says. “That’s a frustration that members have, as well.”
Jordan had offered to deliver about two dozen votes for TPA, enough for Republicans to pass the bill without Democratic help, on three conditions: that GOP leadership include an amendment that sets up “checkpoints” at which the Republican conference could decide if the trade agreement proceeds; that they kill a union-friendly job-training program for workers affected by the free-trade deal, which Senate Republicans had backed in order to win Democratic votes; and that Boehner promise not to allow a vote on the reauthorization of the Export-Import Bank. (Jordan wanted Boehner’s word on Ex-Im because Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell had promised to allow a vote on the bank’s reauthorization in order to get Democrats to drop their filibuster of the trade package.)
In order to avoid having to send the bill back to the Senate, GOP leadership rebuffed all of Jordan’s demands. “They told us to pound sand, so that’s why we did what we did,” says one Freedom Caucus member who joined the procedural revolt.
Jordan’s ability to mobilize opposition to Boehner was bolstered by his intervention in Republican primaries last cycle. His leadership PAC donated $33,000 to nine potential allies, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, and persuaded other Republicans to donate thousands more. “They play in primaries where the NRCC is not playing and there is a clear conservative against a moderate Republican,” one GOP lawmaker explains.
Such cultivation of fellow travelers leads some conservatives to think Jordan hopes to attain a leadership post, if not succeed Boehner. “You don’t seek out candidates, you don’t assist them, if you’re not later planning to use their relationships in some way,” says another beneficiary of Jordan’s largesse. “You help them out early and you acquire their loyalty; that’s a way to get into leadership.”
Jordan has long denied having such ambitions. “I don’t want the job,” he told The Hill in March. “I don’t want to be Speaker. There are lots of other people in our conference who could do a better job.” Some of his friends add that the Freedom Caucus can only provide about one-third of the votes needed to win a speaker’s race. Instead, they point out that HFC was founded to “push the conference to the Right” through orderly negotiations with Boehner’s team.
Having been ignored in such negotiations on TPA, Jordan and his allies decided to make leadership pay a price. One HFC member suggests that Boehner and the rest of the leadership team have been put on notice that conservatives’ concerns must be heard: “If Jim Jordan says he has the votes, they have to believe him.”
— Joel Gehrke is a political reporter for National Review.